The 39th meeting in the gloried rivalry between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal is upon us in the California desert, at the Indian Wells Masters semi-finals.
The rivalry dates back almost 15 years to their first meeting, and for a head-to-head that is talked about as much as this, it was unfortunately one-sided for many years. Nadal leads the head-to-head 23-15 and at one point led 23-10. Federer has won the last five meetings, dating back to November 2015.
Nadal won their first meeting, upsetting Federer in the third round in Miami in 2004 in straight sets. Federer avenged that defeat a year later, at the final in Key Biscayne. What followed was probably never expected by the Swiss. Nadal won five consecutive matches, including four in the title round, before losing to Federer in the Wimbledon final in 2006.
The trend did not particularly change thereafter. Federer was a non-factor for Nadal on the clay, most noticeably in the 2008 French Open final with a crushing defeat to the Spaniard. Nadal’s victories thereafter began to extend beyond clay, with the historic 2008 Wimbledon final, where he beat Federer in an epic five set encounter, and followed it up with another slam final win, this time at the 2009 Australian Open.
The next five years saw much more of the same, with Federer only managing to be convincingly successful against his arch rival at the ATP Tour Finals in London. There were Federer wins at Indian Wells, and Madrid, but not much more that the Swiss could speak to.
After a three year hiatus of not meeting on the big stage, Federer and Nadal met at the 2017 Australian Open final, with the Swiss returning to the tour after a six month injury. Few would have expected Federer to win, but the Swiss maestro pulled off a sensational win after being down a break in the final set.
Federer played close to thirty minutes of some of the best tennis he has ever played against his arch rival. The tide has changed since somewhat, with straight set wins for Federer at Indian Wells, Miami Open, and Shanghai Masters in the same year, resulting in five consecutive Federer victories.
The Federer-Nadal rivalry (‘Fedal’) will always be referred to as among the greatest in the sport. The high-quality matches, the superior shot-making and the complete yet different approaches to the game of either, is what makes it what it is.
Nadal with a menacing forehand, with a combination of power and vicious spin, exploiting the Federer backhand is where the match was won by the Spaniard or lost by the Swiss. The superb Federer serve, backed by the majestic forehand that enabled him to stand superior to all, was unable to hold him in good stead in this match-up.
With a larger face of the racket, and a better read of the Nadal game and approach, Federer has dramatically improved his backhand and that has been the cornerstone of the five consecutive Federer wins. At the same time, at the back of these losses, Nadal has spent time in the off-season, to revamp his serve and improve his backhand.
The Fedal rivalry has brought everything to the game for an enthusiast, an expert, a commentator and a tactician. A story that started as a first “real competitor” to Federer who was becoming more than invincible to any we have seen, evolved into one where Nadal dominated this rivalry like no other.
Just when we thought the maestros were approaching their twilight and we may never see them on either sides of the net again; we get a flurry of matches with Federer having done his homework very well to turn things around. A decade and a half down the road, it still remains special, continues to become more special, and takes turns and twists that we can never think of, but look forward to with bated breath.